The importance of teaching queer history in schools

It’s LGBTI+ history month for school students in Victoria. Simon Copland discusses why this is an important step forward for queer kids everywhere.

Toronto, Ontario - JUNE 27, 2015  The rainbow painted  crosswalks on Church Street reflect the feet of passersby after heavy rain. Participants in the Toronto Dyke March did not let the heavy rainfall dampen their spirits during Pride Toronto 2015. JUNE 27, 2015.        (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Toronto, Ontario – JUNE 27, 2015 The rainbow painted crosswalks on Church Street reflect the feet of passersby after heavy rain. Participants in the Toronto Dyke March did not let the heavy rainfall dampen their spirits during Pride Toronto 2015. JUNE 27, 2015. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Originally published in SBS Sexuality, 10 October 2016

School students in Victoria will be learning about and celebrating LGBTI+ History this October, as part of a program launched today. Following the campaign against the Safe Schools Program over the past twelve months, the initiative presents an opportunity to expand LGBTI+ education beyond the confines of anti-discrimination material.

An initiative from the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria, Minus18 and the Australia Lesbian and Gay Archives,LGBTI History Month provides resources for teachers and students to bring to life the history of the Australian LGBTI community. Mel Gaylard, a Project Officer at the Safe Schools Coalition in Victoria said the history month will allow schools and students to celebrate the deep, often untold, stories of Australian LGBTI people. As she says:

“LGBTI+ stories are as important and fascinating as those we commonly learn about at school. LGBTI+ History month invites schools to celebrate this. Our resources provide them with material and ideas to make queer history visible, during October and beyond.”

“The purpose of the month is to recognise the rich and diverse histories of LGBTI+ people. We want teachers to be inspired to bring these stories into their classrooms and students to consider creative ways to celebrate them in their schools.”

The initiative, originally announced in September, comes after a year-long attack on the Safe Schools Program, which resulted in the gutting of the program nationally early this year. The overarching Safe Schools Materialshave a relatively narrow approach, largely focusing on bullying, discrimination and inclusivity in an attempt to make schools a ‘safe space’. While this anti-discrimination material is obviously important, it has its limitations. First, it assumes discrimination and works from a potentially negative framework. In turn, this makes it about counteracting discrimination rather than embracing queer people, our stories and our history. It potentially creates a somewhat shallow system of toleration and acceptance, which for queer kids can often mean very little. While it may reduce overt discrimination (very important!) queer kids still do not get the opportunity to learn about queer history, queer sex (in sex ed), or queer culture. At a time when much of our discussion about queer history often doesn’t extend prior to Stonewall, this effectively means many young queer people come into adulthood having no idea about their own history.

This is what LGBTI History Month aims to address. In the lead up to the launch, all Victorian schools have been sent an education toolkit and set of posters to help develop lesson plans on LGBTI history. The toolkit includes case studies of LGBTI history, interviews with LGBTI people, ideas of ways students and teachers can take action in their schools, and a list of other resources available for teachers and students alike.

The materials include case studies of a broad range of important Australian LGBTI figures. Posters feature the stories of Captain Moonlite, a suspected gay bushranger; Val Eastwood, the “flamboyant and openly lesbian” proprietor of Val’s Coffee Lounge, which was a haven for queers in Melbourne in the 1950s; and John Ware and Christabel Poll, who formed one of Australia’s first modern LGBTI organisations, CAMP — Campaign Against Moral Persecution.

Materials also look at major events and organisations within Australian queer history, documenting the first ever Mardi Gras in Sydney in 1978, alongside the Gay Teachers and Students Group, who from the ’70s onwards worked to end discrimination against LGBTI people in schools. In many ways a precursor  to Safe Schools, Gay Teachers and Students developed the book ‘Young, Gay and Proud’ in 1978, “which was about letting young gay people know that they were not alone and that they should feel good about themselves.”

Chief Executive of Minus18 Micah Scott said LGBTI History Month was designed to teach staff and students that queer history extends well before the modern era of Stonewall and marriage equality:

“LGBTI History Month teaches the community that LGBTI people have been achieving amazing things for a really long time,” Micah said. “It demonstrates that LGBTI people have strength and resilience – a message that’s important now more than ever.”

More than anything Micah sees it as a celebration:

“The purpose of the month is to give a platform to positive representations of LGBTI people. We’ve achieved so much, but sometimes those achievements might not always be visible. LGBTI+ History Month helps to unearth this, and celebrate our culture.”

This is the real value of the initiative. The attacks on the Safe Schools program are part of a long history of conservatives framing the discussion of gender and sexuality around children as being inherently dangerous. Talking about sexuality around students automatically results in queers being labeled paedophiles or arguments that we want to ‘recruit more gays’. LGBTI+ History Month ignores these criticisms, instead encouraging positive discussions in schools about gender, sexuality, and campaigns for liberation.

This is an important step forward. While the curriculum is not particular challenging, and while there is definitely a lot of work to do, in particular around sex education, LGBTI History Month is an important initiative. It is a step away from negative approaches of school programs that focus solely on discrimination, to one that celebrates queer people and our history. It moves ideally from frames of tolerance and acceptance to a frame of full embracement of queer people, culture and history. Organisers have already indicated they intend for this to be an annual event. Let us hope it spreads to the rest of the country.

This article was originally published on SBS News. Click here to view the original. © All rights reserved.

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